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Judge Allows FedEx|Hard-of-Hearing Claims

(CN) - FedEx Ground must face claims that it discriminates against hearing-impaired employees who need to hear barcode scanners and presenters at meetings, a federal judge ruled.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued FedEx Ground Package System Inc. in Federal Court after 17 of its deaf and hard-of-hearing package handlers filed discrimination charges against the company.

FedEx Ground employees use barcode scanners that beep and attend regular employee meetings and training sessions that often include auditory presentations or videos, but the company does not reasonably accommodate hard-of-hearing handlers, the EEOC claims.

The commission ultimately consolidated the handlers' claims as part of a nationwide systemic investigation of potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After the agency wrote to FedEx Ground about the potential violations, the parties went through conciliation, conference, and persuasion, to no avail, according to court records.

In its lawsuit, the EEOC sought to permanently enjoin FedEx Ground from engaging in disability discrimination and order the shipping company to implement policies, practices, and programs to provide equal employment opportunities and reasonable accommodations for 168 individuals.

The agency also asked for back pay, compensation for past and future pecuniary and non-pecuniary losses, instatement of aggrieved individuals or front pay, and punitive damages.

FedEx Ground moved to dismiss or strike the pattern-or-practice claims. But U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak in Pittsburgh denied the motions Jan. 25, rejecting the company's concern that hundreds of "mini-trials" - not just one suit - are needed to resolve the "varied" allegations.

"While the court appreciates this legitimate concern, the fact that it may be hard does not resolve the issue," Hornak wrote. "This court is expected to take on difficult tasks every day, and is prepared to do so in this case."

The court rejected FedEx Ground's argument that the EEOC failed to allege an unlawful "centralized or blanket policy" adopted or applied by the company.

"The EEOC pleads that 'FedEx has not implemented a corporate-wide procedure' for accommodating deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals," Hornak wrote. "This is not, as FedEx Ground would have the court believe, the 'antithesis' of a standard operating procedure. The law imposes affirmative obligations on employers to engage in interactive processes as they make reasonable accommodations for otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities."

The judge added that an employer's failure to seek reasonable accommodations for disabled employees "can fairly be conceptualized as a standard operating procedure of unlawful conduct."

FedEx Ground spokesman Perry Colosimo said the firm is "committed to fair and equal treatment of all employees and believes the claims made by the EEOC are misleading and not founded in law."

"We value our deaf and hard of hearing employees, and strive to give them, like all our employees, every opportunity to be successful - including working with them to provide individualized and reasonable accommodations," Colosimo said in an email. "The court has recognized that, as this lawsuit moves forward, the EEOC will have 'a duty to put its cards on the table, face up, as to the relief, for whom it seeks, and the factual and legal basis for its doing so.' We look forward to defending the EEOC's claims, if and when it explains the factual and legal basis for those claims."

The EEOC has yet to return a request for comment emailed Sunday.

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